I have this student who always sits apart from the rest of the class… off to the side, next to the wall. This particular class is a cohort of students who take all of their classes together and basically spend all of their time together. They’re tight… except this guy. He always wears a leather jacket; he’s a little pudgy, and he’s got a little bit of a unibrow going on. When I talk to him, he always smiles, and he’s smart — he doesn’t always do his homework, but when he does, it’s really good. He gets jokes that the other students don’t get. His answers are more creative.
We were doing partner discussion a couple of days ago, and one student was missing, so I took the opportunity to be his partner. Usually, when I do this, my students freak out a little; they’re scared to speak in English to the instructor for the duration of class (which I understand — speaking in a second language for that long can be exhausting if you’re at a beginner or intermediate level). But he looked happy.
We were asking and answering questions that contained idioms related to the body: Do you know someone with a heart of gold? Did you ever put your foot in your mouth? What do people do that gets on your nerves? In the middle of these questions came: Do you know someone who always keeps people at arm’s length? “Yes,” he said. “Who?” I asked. “Tell me about this person.” “It’s me!” he replied, and laughed. Suddenly, I was curious. “Why?” I asked. “Why?” he repeated. “Yes.” “I have a disease,” he said, confidently.
“Oh,” I said, matter-of-factly. “Like Asperger’s?” He didn’t know what that was, so I wrote it down for him. He looked at it and said, “No. I have schizophrenia. Do you know schizophrenia?” “Yes,” I said. “I do.” My heart breaking a little, my face trying to remain neutral.
In South Korea, there is a serious social stigma against mental illness and physical disability. I have seen parents not get the proper care or medication for their child because they won’t admit that (s)he needs help. Families who have differently-abled children often hide them away from society (watch the movie “Oasis” for a dramatic example of this), so it was really surprising that this student so readily admitted this to me, smile on his face.
I asked if he was seeing a therapist. Yes, he said — twice a week. Was he on meds? Yes. Then he said, “Don’t worry — it’s not bad. I just think that my face is changing.” I made a questioning sound, so he repeated: “I just think my face is changing all the time. This is my only problem.” Oh, okay.
My coworkers think that this kid is an outcast, or maybe a 왕 타 (victim of bullying). They crack jokes about how he’s the kind of kid who you’d see on the news for school shooting if guns were legal in Korea. I always just thought he was an introvert. I would never in a million years tell them about his schizophrenia (he didn’t say to keep it confidential, but it’s the right thing to do), but I will certainly make a quicker and stronger defense of him if he comes up again in conversation.
After the body idioms discussion and a short film, we moved on to questions involving relationship idioms and largely agreed on our answers. Neither of us believes in soul mates, we both think that open and honest communication is the best way to patch up a relationship, and neither of us is interested in settling down. Maybe I feel a kinship to him because I’ve always felt like an outsider too, even from the inside.
My favorite moment in our whole conversation was this one, though:
Me: Do you believe in love at first sight?
Him: Because I fall in love with every girl I see!